The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.

A Spokesperson For The Ages

Normally, you would think that a public official would pick a spokesperson based on that person’s ability to shape and convey positive and persuasive messages that advanced the public official’s agenda.  And when the “public official” in question is the President of the United States, whose every move is put under a microscope, you would think the careful messaging requirement would be even more essential.

So how in the world did Sean Spicer end up as the White House press secretary?

trumpSpicer’s comment yesterday that suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was in some ways worse than Adolf Hitler, because “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” is unforgivably ignorant — because, of course, Hitler did use poison gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  Children are taught that fact during their world history classes, and the national Holocaust Museum is only a mile or so away from the White House.  How can you be the press secretary for the President of the United States and not be aware of the fact of Hitler’s poison gas executions and avoid making a comment that suggests that you are a know-nothing fool?

Spicer later apologized, but the entire incident raises questions about Spicer and his staff.  Spicer’s abrasive style clearly rubs the press the wrong way, and it has been hilariously lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.  There’s nothing wrong with having a combative press secretary if that is the President’s way of sending a message to the media, although Spicer often seems over the top for my tastes.  But you can’t have a press secretary whose behavior and comments make him the story that distracts from, and undercuts, the President’s goals.  Don’t Spicer and his staff prepare for his press conferences, and carefully consider the arguments he is going to present before he goes before the country and makes them?  If so, how could his staff not recognize the fundamental, underlying idiocy of his comparison of Assad and Hitler?  And if they don’t vet his arguments, and Spicer just “wings it,” then he’s an incompetent whose instincts are obviously ill-suited for the job, and it’s just a matter of time before he makes another thoughtless and stupid comment that sets off another firestorm or provokes an unintended international incident.

Either way, Spicer should be replaced as press secretary.  President Trump might like his two-fisted way of dealing with the press that Trump seems to hold in contempt, but he’s got to realize that Spicer is a huge liability who is just going to step into it again, and again, and again, and make the Trump Administration as a whole look like amateur hour.   That’s not the kind of messaging you want from your press secretary.

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

Backseat Nuclear

Yesterday the Senate voted to change its rules to determine that a 60-vote supermajority requirement does not apply to Supreme Court nominations.  The decision means that it will no longer be possible to filibuster Supreme Court nominations, which now can be approved by a simple majority vote.  That reality, in turn, clears the way for Neil Gorsuch to take a seat on the nation’s highest court.

868d7f9c0a0d02b700028bdae62105edAlthough everybody has called the procedural change “the nuclear option,” this whole spiraling process has always struck me as less like a tense, world-threatening confrontation between countries equipped with atomic weapons and more like a dispute between two bored and bratty kids sitting in the back seat of the family car.  Things escalate, suddenly the kids are pushing and shoving and yelling while the parents in the front seat try to break things up and calm things down, and in the end each red-faced kid blames the other for starting it.

In this case, Republicans blame Democrats for being the first to exercise the nuclear option, and Democrats respond that Republican intransigence forced that decision.  Republicans blame Democrats for reflexively opposing President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, despite his obvious qualifications, and Democrats respond that the Republicans’ refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who also was qualified for the Supreme Court, is what created the current atmosphere.  You really wondered what the parties were going to do absent this procedural change — automatically oppose all Supreme Court nominations by the President of the opposing party until the Supreme Court itself has vanished through age and attrition?

During those grim family car trips, the squabbling kids calm down, the journey continues, and the parents breathe sighs of exasperation and then relief.  Is that going to happen here and — as the parents in this scenario — how are exasperated American voters going to react?  The filibuster was a means of preserving some modicum of power for the minority and of requiring at least a nod to civility and consensus-building, but it also was a self-imposed rule that allowed individual Senators to feel self-important.  If it’s gone, it means that Senatorial privileges have been reduced and that those depictions of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” inhabited by statesman have been further undermined, because true statesmen, regardless of party, would never have allowed things to reach this embarrassing level.  

But, in this day and age, is anyone really surprised that the U.S. Senate is home to a bunch of partisan hacks, on both sides of the aisle, who have put party and interest groups ahead of the national interest?

The Death Of April Fool’s Day

Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day!  Who’s in the mood for a good prank, or an elaborate hoax story — like Sports Illustrated‘s famous The Curious Case of Sidd Finch?

f77aaa7a0ed1f7e38493bbeee74ea5b8Probably not many of us.  In fact, with the way the world is going these days, you’d probably have a hard time determining whether what you read or were told was intended as a funny joke, as more of that “fake news” we’ve been hearing about, planted or leaked to advance some political agenda or another, or as a honest statement about something that has really happened.  Part of the fun of a good prank or hoax is playing on the hoaxed party’s credulity, and picking your target to avoid the inherent skeptic and instead trick the hopelessly naive among us.  But who can truly be deemed naive, or skeptical, about what has or has not happened in the weird reality we now find ourselves in?

Think about it:  if someone told you that the President had tweeted something outrageous, how could you possibly evaluate whether it was true or not without checking?  If you accepted what you were told at face value, would it be because you were a gullible “April fool” or because, in reality, the President has tweeted a series of ill-advised and intemperate things and these days just about anything could come out of his mouth?  In fact, is there anything that any one of our current political leaders, Democrat or Republican, could purportedly say or do, about Russians or surveillance or climate change or leaked diplomatic communications or any other of the prevailing topics of the day, that are so inherently unbelievable that your fakery senses should start tingling?

When reality itself is so bizarre that any statement about an actual event could be considered a prank, and vice versa, April Fool’s Day isn’t quite so much fun anymore.

Hey, you don’t suppose Kish put salt in the sugar bowl, do you?

Trump’s Business Approach

Here’s a surprise:  Congress is mired in disputes about the new legislation that is supposed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (or at least claims to do something to deal with the ongoing problems with President Obama’s signature legislation).  There was supposed to be a vote on the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday, but the tally got postponed over concerns that the legislation might fail.

President Trump has been involved in the wrangling, and last night he weighed in with what the Washington Post described as an “ultimatum.”  According to the Post, Trump told the Republicans in the House to either pass the legislation on Friday, or reject it, in which case Trump will move on to other items on his agenda.  Trump apparently will leave it up to the Republicans in the House to figure out whether they can agree or not.

the-interview-donald-trump-sits-down-with-business-insiderIt’s an interesting approach, and I suspect that it comes from Trump’s years of working in the business world.  Corporations typically don’t engage in open-ended negotiations, allowing events to marinate and slowly come together — which often seems to be how Congress works (if you believe that Congress works at all).  Instead, because there’s a time value to money and limits to corporate resources that can be expended on potential deals that don’t materialize, corporations set establish priorities, set deadlines, and push.  Once a deadline gets set, it becomes another means of applying pressure to the parties to reach an agreement, and if the deal doesn’t get done by the deadline, typically that takes the transaction off the table, the corporation moves on, and there is no going back.

Trump’s approach to this legislative test is, obviously, also informed by political considerations; he wants to set a deadline so members of Congress are actually forced to do something concrete, and we don’t have the lingering story of “what’s going to happen to Obamacare” attracting all of the media attention and detracting from the other things he’s trying to accomplish.  It’s a gamble, because if the legislation Trump is backing doesn’t pass, he could be painted as a failure in the early months of his Administration, making it less likely that he’ll be able to obtain passage of other parts of his agenda, like tax reform.  We already knew that Trump is a gambler, of course — his whole campaign was a bizarre, otherworldly gamble that paid off.  Now he’s bringing some of that high-stakes, business world approach to the legislative political realm.

We shouldn’t be surprised, by now, that Trump is going to continue to gamble and continue to do things in confounding ways.  Today we’ll get another lesson in whether his approach can actually work in Washington, D.C., even on a short term basis.

Trump’s 2005 Taxes

There was a dust-up yesterday about Donald Trump’s taxes.  MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow obtained two pages of Trump’s 2005 personal tax returns, which apparently had been leaked — by someone.  The two pages show that, in 2005, Trump reported income of $150 million, paid $38 million in taxes, primarily through the alternative minimum tax, and benefited from a continuing write-off of losses that apparently date back to 1995.

48550944-cachedThe White House bemoaned the leak of the two pages of the tax returns, noting that an unauthorized leak of tax returns is a violation of federal law.  At the same time, the White House noted that the two pages show that Trump paid a big chunk of money in federal taxes — while also pointing out that he has no obligation to pay one penny more in taxes than the law requires, a position that virtually every taxpayer heartily agrees with — and added that Trump also paid “tens of millions of dollars in other taxes, such as sales and excise taxes and employment taxes, and this illegally published return proves just that.”

In addition, some Trump supporters used the two pages of the return to refute some of the things said by Trump opponents during the presidential campaign — namely, that Trump wasn’t releasing his taxes because he was a poor businessman, his business empire really wasn’t that successful, and his returns would show that he paid no taxes at all.  As a result, some people are speculating that Trump himself engineered the leak and is using the 2005 return to play the media like a Stradivarius — by releasing limited documents that appear to refute opposition talking points, while at the same time objecting to leaks in violation of federal law.

It’s a messy story, and we’ll have to see whether we learn anything further about the source of the leak.  For now, I hold to two basic points:  (1) if Trump didn’t approve the leak and somebody in the federal government (specifically, the IRS) leaked the two pages of the 2005 return to advance their own personal political agenda, that is both illegal and a grossly inappropriate intrusion into Trump’s personal information and should be opposed by anyone, regardless of their political views, who has entrusted the government with their confidential information, via tax returns or otherwise; and (2) the returns show why presidential candidates should release their returns and why, if they object to such a release, voters should insist that they do so.  The 2005 returns indicate that Trump paid millions of dollars pursuant to the alternative minimum tax — a tax that Trump has talked about abolishing.  The public deserves to know whether political positions are motivated by a politician’s own self interest.